Iraqi Refugees Find Michigan Is No Land Of Plenty More than 14,000 Iraqi refugees are expected to enter the U.S. this year, and most of them have gravitated to Detroit. But the economy is so bleak that the State Department no longer wants to allow Iraqis to settle in Michigan unless they have immediate relatives already living there.
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Iraqi Refugees Find Michigan Is No Land Of Plenty

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Iraqi Refugees Find Michigan Is No Land Of Plenty

Iraqi Refugees Find Michigan Is No Land Of Plenty

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Another place where people are looking for jobs is Michigan. The state has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country. The State Department has said the economy is so bad that no more Iraqi refugees should settle in Michigan. The one exception is those with immediate relatives already living in the state. NPR's Jamie Tarabay has this report.

Ms. RHONDA PERKINS (Caseworker, Catholic Archdiocese Refugee Center, Detroit): OK, the other job that I have for you is with Aerotech(ph).

Mr. RAED JABRO (Iraqi Refugee): Do you have the link for them?

Ms. PERKINS: I can get the information for you.

JAMIE TARABAY: With that Web site, Raed Jabro might just have a lead on a job. Forty-nine, with neat hair and trim spectacles, he's here at the Catholic Archdiocese refugee center in Detroit talking jobs with Rhonda Perkins, a caseworker. In Detroit since August, Jabro is hoping for something in his field. He's an engineer, but the market doesn't look good right now.

Mr. JABRO: It's not easy to find a job now.

TARABAY: He's one of thousands of Iraqi refugees trickling into the country, a fraction of the millions who have lost their homes in Iraq because of the war. He had a brother and sister already living in Detroit, and they sponsored Jabro and his family to come here.

Ms. PERKINS: You have my email address, right?

Mr. JABRO: Yes.

Ms. PERKINS: You do have my email address.

TARABAY: With a few possibilities in hand, Jabro says goodbye. It may not be easy for him, but he's got a head start compared to other Iraqis who've come here. He's got qualifications, workable English, and access to a car, something that is critical to getting anywhere in this city stacked with highways but lacking real public transportation. Two years ago, only 202 Iraqi refugees were allowed into the U.S. This year, it's almost 14,000. And most have gravitated to Detroit, home to America's largest Arab population. And that includes a sizable Iraqi Christian or Chaldean community. But now, officials say they're swamped.

Mr. JOHN BIMATTA (Head of Refugee Services, Archdiocese of Detroit): It's not easy.

TARABAY: John Bimatta is the head of refugee services for the Archdiocese of Detroit.

Mr. BIMATTA: They need the help of the entire community. When everything will be easy for us, then we can say, OK, bring more to Michigan. We're ready for them.

TARABAY: His is just one national agency paid by the State Department to help resettle refugees. He expects to resettle around a thousand this year, but only those with immediate relatives already living here. But this new policy is creating another problem. It's called secondary migration. Refugees are settled in another part of the country, and they come to Detroit anyway.

Ms. RAWA BAHOU (Iraqi Refugee): (Arabic spoken)

TARABAY: Like Rawa Bahou. She and her three children are crammed into this two-bedroom apartment in Farmington Hills northwest of Detroit. She lives with her brother-in-law, his wife, and their two children. Her kids are all under nine years old. They climb onto chairs and poke at their bowls of beans and rice. It gets a bit crowded at dinnertime.

(Soundbite of children crying)

TARABAY: Bahou is a widow. She left Iraq after her husband was killed, she says, by an American military patrol. After three years of waiting in Syria, she finally got asylum status. Her nearest relatives live here in Detroit, but the U.N. sent her to Atlanta, Georgia.

Ms. BAHOU: (Through Translator) We stayed in the apartment they rented for us. I didn't go out. I closed the door and called my in-laws to come and get me.

TARABAY: Her brother-in-law rented a van, drove to Atlanta, and brought them here. But all the things that came with her resettlement - the apartment, the cash assistance, the food stamps - all stayed behind. The bureaucracy has yet to catch up with her move. Her sister-in-law complains that no one's been able to give them answers.

Unidentified Man: (Arabic spoken)

TARABAY: And her brother-in-law, his hands black with grease from his job as a mechanic, says he has to carry the burden of providing for everyone. But at least one of the people they've gone to for help insists everything is OK. Joe Kassab is the head of Detroit's Chaldean Federation. He disagrees with the decision to restrict the numbers of Iraqi refugees. He says the Chaldean community can take care of its own.

Mr. JOE KASSAB (Executive Director, Chaldean Federation of America): Those who aren't working, their families, they are supporting them. They are not becoming a burden on the government or on the states. They are clannish people. They live among each other. And if I lose money, or I don't have the money to live on, I have my cousin, my uncle, whoever is going to help me.

TARABAY: Kassab says many Iraqi Chaldean refugees who want to work are employed in hotels or supermarkets owned by Chaldeans. Those are rare jobs in a state where unemployment is 8.7 percent.

What would you say to the average Detroit unemployed person who would hear this and say, I have a license, I speak English, and I still can't find a job. Why should they get the opportunity?

Mr. KASSAB: Well, I certainly sympathize with the Detroiter one, no doubt about it. And he, as a matter of fact, he's entitled to the job more than the refugee who comes to the country. I have no quarrel about that at all. But as you know, it's competitive. It's a competitive market. It's up the employer whom they want to hire.

TARABAY: And that's what officials are worried about. Not the immediate resettlement: finding a house, giving three months' worth of cash assistance. That's the easy part. The hard part is after, when the money has run out, the economy is still bad, and affordable housing is hard to come by. These refugees will have to deal with that in the long run. Jamie Tarabay, NPR News, in Detroit.

SHAPIRO: Michigan Radio's Sarah Hulett contributed to this report.

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